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The RM1.2 Million Opera

  • December 31, 2003

By Elaine Tan

Let’s face it, how many of us really know opera? If you’re honest, not that many, but we’ve all heard of Puccini and Turandot on three counts.

Firstly, old Pooch was sort of an Andrew Lloyd Webber of his time (Jeremy Silver, the conductor I interviewed, was horrified at this suggestion, but did not disagree beyond adding, “but a much better musician!”) and his operas got grander and grander as he aged (Jeremy: “but extraordinarily concentrated and essential!”) and Turandot was his final unfinished masterpiece.

Secondly, he wrote pieces set in Japan and China – having great fun with names like Cio Cio and Ping, Pang, Pong – which naturally make them the first choices for operatic works staged anywhere in Asia.

Thirdly, Pavarotti’s famous rendition of ‘Nessun Dorma’ at the 1990 World Cup finals became a theme song for soccer fans, proving that you can bring high culture to hooligans but you can’t make them think.

So here in Malaysia, we had for the first time ever, fully staged, one of grandest of the grand operas, requiring the strongest voices, a chorus of over 60 men, women and children, 70 orchestra players in the pit and off-stage, presented at the lstana Budaya, costing some 1.2 million Ringgit. How did it go? Well, it all depends.

It depends on whether you paid for tickets or if you are on SMS terms with anyone at all from Texchem. If you got free tickets, and there were quite a few floating around, well, then you really shouldn’t complain about the little glitches, should you? It also depends on whether you know a CEO somewhere, or failing which, a lowly pen pusher with complimentary review tix. If you paid honest money for the tickets, it depends how much you earn. All this because how it went was largely dictated by where you sat, and the palace is notorious for its undemocratic acoustics.

The inexplicable (but artistically honourable) decision was made to stage Turandot without mikes. Madame Butterfly at the Sunway ballroom last year used mikes. Depending on where you sat, you were either able to make out 30% of the singing or, if your CEO friend got you a VIP seat, about 75% max. The strong (and thankfully very good) orchestra drowned out most of the voices, even though there were some pretty powerful ones on stage.

It also depends on whether you were there for the music or the theatre, and how important each factor is to your operatic enjoyment. The instrumentals sounded fantastic and what you could hear of the arias is stuff that makes tenors and sopranos weep, as the roles of Turandot and Calaf are known to be two of the most taxing in the operatic world. But that also depends on which of the double cast you caught.

Costume design for a Chinese cast here in KL should be a cinch, and a cinch it must have been for Silvia Hasenclever who appeared to have used her full powers of creativity to buy the costumes off the rack of some local opera troupe. At least, I hope so. But then, we don’t have any. Make-up was minimal, and it was a great disappointment not to have seen Turandot rendered in Peking Opera make-up as advertised. It was also strangely surreal watching obvious Caucasians play Oriental leads while the Orientals played the masses.

However, due to the two sets of casts, you may have caught the Asian principals: Turandot was sung by Jessica Hsing-an Chen or Elizabeth Price, Liu by Cecilia Yap (winner for Best Solo Performance at the Cammies 2003) or Miyuki Morimoto (who was Cio Cio in last year’s Madame Butterfly), and Ping, Pang and Pong by Aw Yeow Hoay, Kee Loi Seng and Peter Ong or Benoit De Leersnyder, Fernando Campo Mozo and Stefan Cifolelli. Only Calaf was double casted with foreigners: Dominic Natoli and David Barrell. I got Barrell and the other foreigners, causing me great worry how the audience fared with hearing the singing on the other nights. Also, I imagine much of the huge budget was spent in flying in the foreigners and accommodating them, when perhaps the money could have been used to train the locals.

The stage set was uninspired, taking no advantage of the lstana’s height and hydraulics. Of course, this then depends on whether you caught the Penang show or the KL show. Set Designer Hannah Tatjana Becher had the daunting task of ensuring the set was usable at the two sites and movable between the two vastly different spaces. Becher also did Madame Butterfly‘s set design. While I could forgive minimalism in Madame Butterfly, I regret to say that that it was most unsuitable for an epic like Turandot, which should be a total theatrical experience.

It also depends how you look at money. Turandot supposedly cost RM1.2M. Madame Butterfly RM600,000 and Tosca, organised by Lyric Opera and sponsored by Nescafe, also at the lstana Budaya just six months ago, some RM700,000.  These are huge sums and like a true Chinese, I wonder how it was spent.

However, if you think that is mighty generous of Texchem to fork out between half to one million every year to bring us a bit of high culture, if you think that it is nifty that our palace is being put to some use, if you think that it is a wonderful opportunity for our local vocalists, musicians and technicians to work on big projects with acclaimed and well-trained foreign professionals, if you think that the Malaysian arts scene gains with every offering to the public – and surely these are concrete and noble achievements – then you would think that regardless of the little irksome details, Turandot was a fine and jolly good show.

First Published: 31.12.2003 on Kakiseni